Imagine this: You smoke, you’re 25, you’re a graduate student interested in public health, when you are summoned to the deathbed of your uncle. The youngest of your mother’s three brothers. Never smoked. Never drank. And he lay dying from stomach cancer.
“If you ever do anything in your life, do something about cancer,” he tells you. Your heart sinks. In your pocket, you carry a pack of cigarettes.
That was enough for Michael P. Eriksen. A cigarette never touched his lips again. And he hopes it never touches yours, either.
Georgia State University received the largest grant in its 100-year history Thursday when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health awarded Eriksen and a team of researchers $19 million to study why people use tobacco.
The findings will help shape federal rules about how cigarettes and other tobacco products are marketed across the United States. It will give scientists a deeper look into why people ignore the public health risks. And it will inform science about why they choose to quit.
“To this day, it’s one of the proudest moments of my life,” said Eriksen, now 63 and dean of Georgia State’s School of Public Health. “I had no idea I would be involved with tobacco research 40 years later.”
Eriksen has spent a career researching tobacco prevention and control efforts, including a stint as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office on Smoking and Health. In that time, he has also watched a nearly 20-year drama unfold nationally.
The FDA initially tried to regulate tobacco use in 1996, only to be sued and, eventually, rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled only Congress had the authority to authorize such regulation. That happened in 2009. Now, four years later, the FDA has unleashed the first round of grants in what is a broader five-year, $273 million effort to establish regulations based on science.
Federal officials are establishing 14 “tobacco centers of regulatory science” nationwide to do research about tobacco use. Other institutions receiving money included Yale University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Southern California. All the centers have different research goals but, taken together, they will inform people’s understanding about what goes into the marketing, use and addiction related to tobacco.
The timing coincides with the upcoming 50th anniversary in January of the first surgeon general’s report of a correlation between smoking and cancer. Strides have been made since but not enough for Eriksen, who also noted a rise of new products that include electronic cigarettes and so-called dissolvables (essentially candy with nicotine).
“Thirty percent of all cancer is caused by smoking,” he said. “More people die from lung cancer than from the next four cancers combined,” including breast, colon, prostate and pancreatic cancer.
NIH Director Francis S. Collins took that same tack in announcing the new effort. The new centers, he said in a statement, “keep us focused on reducing the burden and devastation of preventable disease caused by tobacco use.”